Hilary Harris’ films got plenty of attention when they were released in the 50s, 60s and 70s – his use of technological innovations like time-lapse photography in particular was beloved by critics, and he won an Academy award for his short film about the Scottish shipbuilding industry, Seawards the Great Ships in 1962. In the intervening years, however, his work has largely been neglected and remembered only for those sensational uses of cutting-edge technology now long-surpassed. This is a real pity because it seems to me his work deserves more than a mere footnote in the history of film.
I came to Harris’ work through his film Highway(1958), which features extended b/w shots of American highways and from American highways in the 1950s set to a jazz & rock n roll soundtrack. There’s a fun interpenetration of the visual and sonic rhythms, which sees lampposts whizz by at the beat of a snare drum and the film appears to affirm a zeitgeist-y feel of freedom, freeways and jazzy beats reminiscent of Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), which came out around the same time. However, I think Harris’ vision of the highway is not wholly affirmative and resists falling back on Kerouac’s nostalgia for the freedom of the American highway. Though accompanied by lively sound and visuals, for example, Highway’s five long minutes eventually secrete a sense of repetition and monotony, caught in an almost infernal circularity which ensnares driver and viewer alike in a circuit without exit, repeating the same shots over and over. Turn off the sound and the film starkly presents nothing so much as the tedium of driving on America’s roads, exposing the hypocrisy of both the film’s own combination of video- and soundtrack and the mythos of American freedom they appear to evoke. What if Kerouac and Harris represent divergent responses to the construction of Eisenhower’s Interstate Highways, inaugurated by the Federal Aid Highway Acts? Famously, Kerouac’s On the Road is a lament for the good old days of driving unfettered across the States; perhaps Harris’ Highway is a deeper critique of America’s passion for freedom that finds itself routed into conduits controlled by government and big business since the formation of the Good Roads movement in the late nineteenth century…
Nine Variations on a Dance Theme(1966/1967), meanwhile, is belied by the simplicity of its title. It is ostensibly a short, thirteen-minute film in which the dancer Bettie De Jong performs a set range of movements nine times – on each occasion filmed slightly differently by Harris’ camera and accompanied by a slightly different soundtrack. As this blogger succinctly puts it:
In the first variation, his camera simply twirls in a slow circle around the room, its graceful arc mirroring the dancer’s own swirling motion. With the second variation, he places the camera at ground level with de Jong, watching her from a more intimate perspective. From there, the variations in Harris’ technique become more elaborate and complex, while the dance itself retains its pared-down simplicity with each iteration.
Yet in addition to the film’s stunning formal experimentation described here, the experience of viewing Nine Variations… is, for want of a better phrase, fucking weird. The first variation finds dance and performer, sound and vision unified into one smooth series of movements. With each subsequent repetition, however, through Harris’ use of close-up, cutting and montage, the action described becomes more and more dis-integrated and expansive, dissociated from centralisation and control. A limb stretches; an elbow bends; weight presses down upon a foot: it becomes almost impossible to imagine this is the work of one body. Subject to Harris’ various iterations De Jong’s body unfolds like one without organs.
Desiring-machines make us an organism; but at the very heart of this production, within the very production of this production, the body suffers from being organized in this way, from not having some other sort of organization, or no organization at all. (Deleuze & Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, p. 8)
This notion of the organisation of the organism is taken up in Harris’ most famous work, Organism (1975), which juxtaposes scientific commentary on anatomy and cellular biology with time-lapse video of New York, taken over fifteen years. There are various opportunities for simplistic identifications between one and the other, for example, when scientific sound bytes describe digestion (shots of New York municipal dump) or the process by which cells communicate (shots of New York’s JFK airport), and the film is most often associated with Koyaanisqatsi. Like that more popular film, Organism can be seen to simultaneously critique the intrusion of technology into the life of the planet, while affirming the effects of ubiquitous technology (time-lapse, electron microscopes, etc). I don’t care what anyone says, I think it’s got a bitchin’ soundtrack.